David Brooks on Annette Lareau’s Unequal Childhoods.

by Harry on March 12, 2006

David Brooks has discovered Annette Lareau’s book Unequal Childhoods. Through the miracles of modern blogging those of you who missed the column can read it in the body of Laura’s post on it. If, like Laura, you’re unnerved in some way by Brooks’s interpretation, don’t let that put you off the book. He is right about several things, the main one being that the book is brilliant, and should be read by just about anyone interested in family life. If you’re a teacher of poor children it will help you understand what’s going on in the children’s lives; if you’re a teacher of wealthy children it’ll probably confirm what you already know. If, like me, you’re a parent, it’ll help you reflect on your own situation. I don’t do anything radically different because of reading the book, but there are several ways in which I treat my children somewhat differently; in particular giving them more unsupervised time, and being (even) less interventionist when they are at odds with each other which, as if by magic, is much less often.

So what does Brooks get right?

The greatest value of the book is in displaying so much of the texture of individual family lives; displaying and making sense of the texture of real human interactions is what the best ethnographies do, and this is one of the best ethnographies. She makes a division of the childrearing strategies she encounters into two ideal types; “concerted cultivation” and “accomplishment of natural growth”. The families she describes in the book each fall very firmly on one or the other of these types, and the division is a clear class division. But your family may not. Reflecting on my childhood (aspirant middle class, UK, born 1963) I find more of accomplishment of natural growth than of concerted cultivation. I definitely wanted to see a methodolgically impossible follow up study comparing families across countries and across different times (was concerted cultivation the norm in middle class families when my dad was growing up? I don’t believe so). Still, the distinction is clear and useful.

Lareau is a sociologist, and is reluctant to make normative comment on the practices she is analyzing. But she makes two really valuable points, one of which I already understood, the second of which I had spent several months grasping for, and only crystallized for me when she made it. Brooks gets the second, but not the first and, therefore, not the importance of the second.

The first point is that the traits that the different parenting strategies foster only have the impact they do on children’s life chances through interaction with a contingent social structure that values some traits and not others. This is the key point that Brooks neglects. Here is Lareau:

This kind of training developed Alexander and other middle-class children a sense of entitlement. They felt they had a right to weigh in with an opinion, to make special requests, to pass judgment on others, and to offer advice to adults. They expected to receive attention and to be taken very seriously. It is important to recognize that these advantages and entitlements are historically specific…. They are highly effective strategies in the United States today precisely because our society places a premium on assertive, individualised actions executed by persons who command skills in reasoning and negotiation.

The point that Brooks emphasizes is that it does not follow from the fact that one strategy of parenting confers better prospects for worldly advantage than the other that it is a better strategy of parenting. A great deal of value is realized in the relationships in both kinds of family, and, as Brooks say, a great deal of current value is realized in the Accomplishment of Natural Growth homes. Siblings fight less, there is a great deal of unstructured time, there is much less exhaustion and competitiveness. Here, again, is Lareau:

(Accomplishment of Natural Growth) parents… organised their children’s lives so they spent more time in and around the home, in informal play with peers, siblings, and cousins. As a result, the children had more autonomy regarding leisure time and more opportunities for child initiated play. They were also more responsible for their lives outside the home.

The working class children:

played outside, creating their own games… They did not complain of being bored…also appeared to have boundless energy. They did not have the exhaustion that we saw in middle-class children of the same age.

In both kinds of family:

There were episodes of laughter, emotional connection, and happiness as well as quiet comforts in every family. Harold MacAllister and his mother laughed together as he almost dropped his hotdog but then, in an awkward grab, caught it. After a baseball game Mr. Williams rubbed Alexander’s head affectionately and called him “handsome”…. These moments of connection seemed deeply meaningful to both children and parents in all social classes, even as the take different shape by social class, in terms of language, activity, and character.

So, there’s a lot of good and not a little bad in both kinds of familial relationship (and those in between). The poor parents face enormous barriers (about which Lareau is very articulate) in providing well for their children materially and educationally, which results in their children having less access to future advantage. But that doesn’t make them bad parents. (Only one parent in the book struck me as really parenting badly, though I found myself hoping that all the upper-class parents would read it and reflect a bit on what they were doing).

One final word: Brooks’s final sentence is, as one of Laura’s commenters (def, #22) points out, disgusting, and has nothing to do with the book. From the fact that A has out-competed B to reach a certain position, it does not follow that A is not, having achieved that position, exploiting B. It’s the kind of thing that you say when you want to shield people from subjecting their own advantages to moral scrutiny.



Kieran Healy 03.12.06 at 10:31 am

I’m almost done writing an article about sociology’s relationship to political philosophy (for a companion/handbook volume) and I was just about to start writing the Lareau paragraph … it’s a very nice complement to the straight-up mobility/stratification literature and adds a lot of texture to the Bourdieuian approach. Your two points mirror a big issue in the field, viz, the relationship between the narrow (but not trivial!) question of attainment — which people move through the available positions in the social structure; and the bigger problem of how these positions and come into being in the first place, along with rules governing possibilities for action.


Laura 03.12.06 at 11:52 am

I was surfing around last night and found chapter one of the Lareau book on line. Good stuff. Thanks for clarifying, Harry, how Brooks got her wrong. I was ready to write her off after I saw his column. Now I’m going to buy the book.


Alorac Arucsbo 03.12.06 at 12:49 pm

Is there any mention of the role of family breakdown in the book? Most middle-class children grow up with their two biological parents, while many working-class children know only their own mother and a sequence of predatory males (the ‘patchwork family’). The term ‘childrearing strategy’ is hardly appropriate in such an environment.

Seems all very impressionistic and anecdotal to me (but then I’ve only read the ‘Look inside the Book’ pages on Amazon).


djw 03.12.06 at 12:52 pm

I hope you’ll post an announcement when that paper is publically available, Kieran, I’d be quite interested to see what you’ve got to say on sociology and political philosophy.


Donald Johnson 03.12.06 at 1:39 pm

Let this be a lesson to you, laura. Never make a judgment about anyone or anything based on what David Brooks says. Well, you can make a judgment about David Brooks, one which I trust will not be favorable.


Dan Simon 03.12.06 at 1:42 pm

The perhaps overprogrammed middle-class kids got into good colleges and are heading for careers as doctors and other professionals. The working-class kids are not doing well. The little girl who built dollhouses had a severe drug problem from ages 12 to 17. She had a child outside wedlock, a baby she gave away because she was afraid she would hurt the child. She now cleans houses with her mother…..

But the point is that the working-class parents were not bad parents.

Let’s see if I’ve got this straight: many upper-middle-class parents provide a lot of structure for their children, so their kids end up upper-middle-class, happy, successful and confident. Many working-class parents, on the other hand, let their kids pretty much find their own way, so their kids end up drug-addicted, pregnant and barely surviving. “So, there’s a lot of good and not a little bad in both kinds of familial relationship (and those in between).”

Here’s an alternative hypothesis: parents of any socioeconomic rank who provide a lot of structure for their children, take an active interest in their activities, and try to help them and guide them when they’re having problems, are much more likely to have children who are successful–that is, who have stable, happy, productive lives–irrespective of whether those children were groomed for, or end up in, a profession, a trade, service-industry work, the military, small business ownership, or any other vocation.

Parents who neglect their children, on the other hand, leaving them to their own devices and intervening only in cases of extreme misbehavior or danger, are likely to end up with children who are troubled, unhappy and unsuccessful–irrespective of whether or not they manage to enter a lucrative profession.


y81 03.12.06 at 1:49 pm

Well, I think Brooks’s point–hardly a disgusting one–was only that exploitation is not a very useful concept in understanding why some are rich and poor. Just as, if someone asked why some people get tenure whereas others slave for years as adjuncts, it isn’t a useful answer to say that tenured professors are exploiting adjuncts. It may be true, but it doesn’t explain how they got to their respective positions.

Mind you, I’m unconvinced that parenting styles actually explain why some do better than others. I think it has more to with parental ambitions, values and resources than with parenting styles. Also something to do with inherited abilities (the value of which is also historically contingent of course). But I haven’t read the book.


Oskar Shapley 03.12.06 at 1:51 pm

laura, thanks for the link.


Jim Harrison 03.12.06 at 2:00 pm

It makes perfectly good sense to raise your own children to succeed; but without a change in the basic organization of our society, universalizing upper-middle class patterns of child rearing is just going to result in a lot of disappointed young adults. Too many alphas, not enough gammas.


reuben 03.12.06 at 2:54 pm


I take it from your comment that you’ve read Brooks’ article, but haven’t actually read Lareau’s book, right? Because the point is, the working class parents aren’t actually, to take a word from your comment, neglecting their children. Not at all. These were all close, emotionally supportive, happy families. Neglect was not even remotely a factor in any of the families Lareau wrote about, as you would know if you weren’t just taking Brooks at face value.

One of the issues being discussed over at Laura’s blog is just how misinformed someone can be when they do just that. I’m afraid that you’ve provided a perfect example.


harry b 03.12.06 at 3:14 pm


no, not a disgusting point to make, maybe even true. Not, though, what he said, which was what I was criticising. Maybe he meant what he didn’t say — I can see the point now you make it. If he’d made it in different language that would have been fine.


MQ 03.12.06 at 6:51 pm

Cross posted from Laura’s comment thread:

The heavily scheduled, tightly organized childhood of today’s middle class kids is recent and historically specific. I think it is driven by the rigidification of class boundaries in America and the fear of downward mobility. The society does not have as many shared norms and behaviors as it used to, life outside the gated community is more dangerous, and therefore you work harder to make sure your kid stays inside it. Attempts to come up with a universal as opposed to a historically specific form of upper-class upbringing are silly. The tradition of elite boading schools combined with hands-off aristocratic parenting hardly fit this model.


serial catowner 03.12.06 at 6:57 pm

Reminds me of what my parents, who were both WW II vets, told me: “Be an officer. They don’t work any harder, and they get the best of everything.”


Dan Simon 03.12.06 at 7:19 pm

I take it from your comment that you’ve read Brooks’ article, but haven’t actually read Lareau’s book, right?

It’s true that I haven’t read the book, but I was taking my cue not just from Brooks’ article, but also from Harry’s gloss on it. And having now read chapter one of the book (thanks to the link provided above by Laura), I see nothing to change my assessment.

Because the point is, the working class parents aren’t actually, to take a word from your comment, neglecting their children. Not at all. These were all close, emotionally supportive, happy families.

Perhaps you’re taking my term “neglect” to refer to emotional coldness or even abuse. I’m simply talking about the casual indifference that Lareau refers to as “aiding the accomplishment of natural growth”. “[T]here was quite a bit more talking in middle-class homes than in working-class and poor homes”, she writes, and “[w]orking-class and poor parents sometimes were not as aware of their children’s school situation (as when their children were not doing homework).” Moreover, “working-class and poor children have more control over the character of their leisure activities”, which might therefore consist of “watching television all day”.

Lareau’s thesis is that this kind of hands-off parenting would be just fine for children, but for the fact that social institutions like schools and businesses demand a certain set of skills that children cannot acquire without extensive parental assistance. But since she’s studying a collection of typical children with typical outcomes, any other difference between the two groups she might have chosen would have been equally plausible as a cause of the difference in outcomes. (For example, she could have told the story of how access to more advanced video game technology gave middle-class kids a cognitive leg up on their lower-class peers, and thus allowed them to preserve their place in the professional classes in the next generation.) Merely observing a difference like this doesn’t even demonstrate a correlation, much less a causation.

A much more useful approach would have been to focus on categories of children who bucked the trend, such as lower-class children who made it through an elite college or professional school**, or children of professionals who ended up struggling with drug abuse or teenage parenthood. In the former category would doubtless be many children of immigrants–whose parents obviously were not busy teaching them the finer points of how to navigate the institutions of their newly adopted country. However, I would bet that the successful children of lower-class immigrant children typically had extremely involved parents, who spent a great deal of time watching over them, advising them, encouraging them, and keeping them out of trouble. And conversely, I would bet that middle-class children who “drop out” typically have relatively uninvolved parents, who let school, neighborhood and peer group raise their children, and don’t inquire much as to what their children are up to.

In short, Lareau’s study certainly hasn’t demonstrated (and, indeed, couldn’t possibly demonstrate) that what she calls “accomplishment of natural growth” (and I call “neglectful parenting”) is benign apart from its failure to impart to children knowledge of the various quirks of modern educational and commercial culture. And there is lots of reason to believe that bestowing the benefits of “concerted cultivation” on a child is more a matter of parental choice than of parental class background.

**As I mentioned in my previous comment, I don’t necessarily believe that these markers of middle-class achievement are necessarily the ones by which parenting methods should be judged in any event. As a parent-to-be, for example, I would gladly trade away substantial opportunities for my child to reach these pinnacles, in return for modestly lowering the odds of her failing (say, due to drug abuse or teenage motherhood) to achieve even a decent working-class lifestyle. But I’m not sure whether this distinction really affects my point. Also, Brooks gives an example from Lareau’s book that suggests she noted a heightened risk of such severe misfortune–and not just difficulty getting into professional schools–among children raised by lower-class/”natural growth” parents.


mythago 03.12.06 at 8:55 pm

Middle-class parents also enjoy the advantages of middle-class neighborhoods. However much structure I do or don’t provide my kids, I don’t have to provide in the face of drug dealers on the corner or violence at school.


mrjauk 03.12.06 at 9:50 pm

“I was ready to write her off after I saw his [Brooks’] column.

Laura, I hope you were being sarcastic.


cw 03.12.06 at 11:51 pm

I’m getting my MA in teaching and have been quoted lots of research on poor kids and their parents. I think that Harry is right that in the “old days” all parenting was much more laissez-fair. The parenting that I and the kids I grew up with certainly was. And I think it is corrrect that this is the essentially the same parenting style that lower class parents (in genral) employ today.

The problem with this is that white middle class parents have now developed a differing parenting style that better meets the high value our culture places on education. A culture which is, as we speak, in the process of raising expectations. For instance, children are now taught to read in kindergarten (at least here in WI). I played alot and took naps.

The thing that the white middle class are doing right, paying so much more attention to their infants , toddlers and preschoolers. They talk to them way more (middle class children hear something like 9 times the words poor children do by the time they start school). They hold them more. They let them cry much less. They don’t yell nearly as much. They carry the baby around with them in slings or backpacks. This–according to the research I have been quoted–grows better brains. The babies make more neural connections through the words, the contact, the jostleing. At least that’s what I’ve been told. And as a result, white middle class kids end up starting school further ahead than poor kids. And the poor kids, on average, never catch up.

Even if you don’t buy the brain improvement stuff, middle class white kids start out with way more exposure to language and literary materials, which means thay have a head start in reading, and reading is by far the single most important skill for succeding in school.

And the lassez-fair parenting style has profound educational disadvantages in the later school years, as well. Lassez-fair parents don’t make their kids do homework, go to bed on time, stop playing video games, read, eat right. They don’t come to school functions which means the teacher doesn’t develop a personal relationship or get the parental insights into the kids. Poor parents also–because they are much more likely to have done poorly in school themselves–also don’t value education as much. Parental expectations are hugely important.

Middle-class kids would still have advantages if everyone parented the same way, but adding a parenting style that–theoretically–grows better brains, plus better suits the dominant culture’s educational sytem, puts poor kids at that much more of a disadvantage, at least educationally.

I think the points made about middle-class children needing more unstructured time (recess!) is valid. And the over-structuring of children’s lives is going to have an effect on our culture somehow, and I don’ think it will necessarily be good (who knows). But in most other ways, middle-class parenting style is more effective in the dominant culture which so values extended education.


cw 03.13.06 at 12:09 am

One more thing that I just thought of while I was in the kitchen looking for some more cookies. The whole point of “parenting” is to teach your kids the things they need to know to be happy and successful adults. Any parenting style that dosen’t turn out happy successful adults in a given culture is by definition, faulty. Parenting styles have to prepare the kid for the world it will live in.

That’s not to say that there aren’t other socio-economic factors involded in becoming a happy successful adult. Or that poor people adopting the good parts of the white middle class parenting style is going to automatically make happy successfful adults. But parenting style is something that everyone has some control over. More control over that most other socio-economic conditions.


John Quiggin 03.13.06 at 12:43 am

As in all discussions of education and so on, there’s a big problem in disentangling things that are inherently useful (ability to read, for example) and things that are useful because they let you fit in with upper/middle class society (such as having the right accent, in some cases).

The stuff about questioning authority provides a good example. In the relatively recent past, the middle class placed a much higher value on deference to authority than is the case now.

Regardless of the content of approved behavior, it’s obvious that middle-class households are going to do a better of job of teaching people to be middle-class than anybody else.

This is one of many reasons why I think the notion of equality of opportunity makes no sense in a society with highly unequal and stratified outcomes.


cw 03.13.06 at 1:31 am

“In the relatively recent past, the middle class placed a much higher value on deference to authority than is the case now.”

In my limited experience in the public schools, the poor black kids challenge authority way more than that middle class white kids.

But maybe you are talking about something more existential. Maybe the poor black kids can challenge the petty authority of the teacher, but not the profound authority that the dominant culture has over them. They accept there fate to a larger degree, which would make sense because they see how little power they have.


Chris Bertram 03.13.06 at 2:45 am

The whole point of “parenting” is to teach your kids the things they need to know to be happy and successful adults. Any parenting style that dosen’t turn out happy successful adults in a given culture is by definition, faulty.

My initial reaction to this point would constitute a violation of Godwin’s law.


Sebastian Holsclaw 03.13.06 at 3:29 am

“The whole point of “parenting” is to teach your kids the things they need to know to be happy and successful adults. Any parenting style that dosen’t turn out happy successful adults in a given culture is by definition, faulty. Parenting styles have to prepare the kid for the world it will live in.”

This suggests that all children are the same. Quite frankly, they aren’t. A parenting style may be excellent for your first two children and then atrocious for your next one. Children are people. People have different temperaments.


Harald Korneliussen 03.13.06 at 3:47 am

cw: What you say makes sense, but one interesting case study may be the current norwegian prime minister. He comes from a politician’s family and went to a Waldorf/Steiner scool. I did, too, and I can say that they are definitvely oriented towards “natural growth”. And Waldorf parents are often your typical circus artist: idealist, artist, vegetarian – and lower/lower middle class. They care about their children, sure, else they wouldn’t have bothered to send them to a private school, but many are downright anarchistic – they sure don’t plan their children’s weeks for them! And it seems to work, with children from waldorf schools having good results in higher education and careers – despite fewer hours of classroom education, two-hour long morning-welcome rituals every day, etc.

Now one of the things I’ve heard of Jens Stoltenberg, but not been able to verify, was that he learned to read very late.

I realise I don’t really have much of a big point to make. Just that one measure of the parenting theories discussed in this forum might be how well they explain the sucesses and failures of idealistic schools like Steiner and Montesorri.


Harald Korneliussen 03.13.06 at 3:54 am

Oh, cw, I have an additional point to your other comment, too:

“The whole point of “parenting” is to teach your kids the things they need to know to be happy and successful adults. Any parenting style that dosen’t turn out happy successful adults in a given culture is by definition, faulty. Parenting styles have to prepare the kid for the world it will live in.”

Well, I realise you probably don’t disagree with this, but children have value right here and now, too, not just as potential adults. That’s important to remember. So “faulty” parenting modes may still be sensible, if the only happiness available in adult life were shallow and expensive.


rollo 03.13.06 at 4:39 am

“Parenting styles have to prepare the kid for the world it will live in.”

The best parenting styles will prepare a child for the world it will live in, and change by that living.
We mold the world as much as we mold our children.
Black parents in southern Georgia in the US in 1854 would prepare a child one way for the world then, black parents in Georgia in 1954 for another world entirely.
Change doesn’t come from successful adaptation to the way things are.


Daniel 03.13.06 at 5:37 am

Any parenting style that dosen’t turn out happy successful adults in a given culture is by definition, faulty.

The word “successful” in this sentence appears to either be completely superfluous (because synonymous with “happy”) or actively counterproductive (if we are to assume that there is some level of material achievement which would make a parenting style really good even if the kid grew up miserable).


John Emerson 03.13.06 at 7:36 am

Lareau’s conclusions, as paraphrased and cited (I haven’t read the book) square with my own pretty-diverse sixty years of experience. I have known a lot of hard-working, decent small town families who did not try to hand-craft perfect kids and who did not put an overwhelming stress on education. I have also know a lot of medical students whose lives had been scheduled by the hour continuously since their second or third birthdays. The children of the small-town families were in no way neglected and often were taking adult responsibilities in their middle teens.

I don’t know whether Lareau stresses it, but in the world of today the occupational structure is stacked in favor of the middle-class group.

A nuance of that is that even those who achieve material and job success from a “natural growth”, non-collegiate starting point end up being barred from job advancement after a certain point, and generally less respected than those whose success comes via credentialization. I am convinced now that a lot of right-wing energy comes from successful non-collegiate people, who resent the snootiness of the collegiate elite. Republican populists are fake, but the Democrats have cut themselves off from non-collegiate whites.


Steve LaBonne 03.13.06 at 8:52 am

I’d be interested to hear what some more of the academics around here, with longer college / university teaching experience than I had, make of the proposition that professional-class kids are primed for “success” by their overscheduled childhoods and helicoper parents. Based on what I saw I’m skeptical. Seemed to me while teaching them that a lot of the little darlings were going to have to overcome the ill efects of that kind of upbringing before they’d be good for much, and that the overcoming in many cases was going to have to involve their falling on their asses a few times in the early post-college years without Mommy around to pick them up.


Barry 03.13.06 at 8:58 am

“Is there any mention of the role of family breakdown in the book? Most middle-class children grow up with their two biological parents, while many working-class children know only their own mother and a sequence of predatory males (the ‘patchwork family’). The term ‘childrearing strategy’ is hardly appropriate in such an environment.”

Do you actually believe this?


Steve LaBonne 03.13.06 at 9:13 am

John- there are plenty of ex-Waldorf kids and so forth doing just fine in college; I seriously don’t think childhood overscheduling is a prerequisite to “success” however defined. (It only appears that way because the helicopter style has become so prevalent among the classes whose kids would grow up privileged in any case.) When, for example, do those kids ever have time to read for pleasure?

I like your point about credentialism. Since creeping credentialization is a bane on our society, attacking it might indeed be an opportunity for Democrats to do well while doing good.


John Emerson 03.13.06 at 9:18 am

Steve Labonne: I worked in a medical school for a long time, and I ended up believing that the vast majority of medical students come from “concerted cultivation” upper-middle-class families. I don’t have that degreee of involvement with graduate schools, but friends have told me that there’s a similiar dynamic there.

Coming from an upper-middle class educated family, receiving a lot of educational enrichment, and having a lot of elite connections overlap, so this can be described either in meritocratic or class terms. On the one hand, the elite isn’t anti-intellectual the way it used to be, except for the Bush family. But as a result, I think that the university no longer serves very well as an avenue of upward mobility, or as a way of fostering talent found in unexpected places.

I don’t think that high-achieving Asian Americans refute my claim. They seem mostly to come from elite families, though many of them take a step down in class in order to emigrate (i.e., Koreans running convenience stores in the US probably didn’t run convenience stores in Koreas).

There are exceptions though. Even uneducated parents of East Asian origin often have a fanatical commitment to education which many other American parents lack.


paul 03.13.06 at 9:22 am

Eek. What’s even more terrifying to me is the prospect that, having raised kids in rigidly supervised ways that prime them for a very particular kind of “success”, the upper-middle-class parents will devote their remaining energy to ensuring that the US political and economic system becomes ever more attuned to providing success to such offspring in preference to others.

(Of course, I’m biased by the fact that “failure” is the best thing that ever happened to me. I can only imagine how barren my life would have been had I gotten a PhD in physics in my early 20s, as originally planned.)


John Emerson 03.13.06 at 9:26 am

Steve, we crossed. I think that Waldorf is sort of a freak or sport. Freedom is given in a sort of controlled, intentional, very nurturing setting. (Montessori even more so — my son went to a Montessori school up to age 6). The kind of laissez-faire Lareau was talking about really lets the kid find his way on his own in the local community as it is, with good results or bad, but with a tendency to track people away from college.

There are costs to the intensive approach, especially for kids who don’t like school or don’t do well, or for the ones with over-demanding parents. One kid I know of had almost straight A’s up to her Jr. year but heard about the one B way too much, and she got mad and ran away from home.


Steve LaBonne 03.13.06 at 9:33 am

Well, see, bringing up the Asian kids is interesting. I think devotion to education is not the same thing as helicoptering, and I have the impression that Asian kids are generally weaned from overdependence on their parents much earlier- after the early childhood years, the parents appear to function more as somewhat stern and slightly distant taskmasters than as omnipresent entertainment directors. The Asian style is one I neither admire nor have any desire to practice with my daughter, but at least it seems less likely than the now-current upper middle clsss American parenting style to produce kids like one that I knew of in the college where I taught, who as a senior imagined that a note from his mommy would get him out of a neglected requirement that threatened to delay his graduation. I wonder how many times he’s been fired over the years…

As to medical school, the cost and consequent class-restriction is a confounding variable as I noted above. These are the families who would be sending lots of kids to med school regardless. (Most of the Asian premeds I taught had well-off or downright rich professionals, not grocery-store owners, as parents.)


Steve LaBonne 03.13.06 at 9:34 am

John- we crossed again, your comments in #33 make sense to me. Thanks.


reuben 03.13.06 at 11:25 am


First of all, many contratulations on your upcoming child. Colour me jealous.

Your points are interesting, and I’m glad you’ve read chapter one of this book, but there really is more to it, the more you read on. For instance, Lareau discusses differing ways in which parents navigate bureacratic hurdles. In the case of an upper middle class parent, when her daughters don’t score high enough to get into their school’s gifted programme, the mother uses her social and human capital to work the system so that her girls are admitted to the programme anyway.

Later, we meet a working class woman whose child does fine in math, but who reads terribly. Why doesn’t this woman work the system so that this problem gets sorted out? Lareau uncovers several reasons. For one, she lacks the human and social capital, and self-confidence, to over-rule the professionals who are offering (conflicting) opinions regarding her daughter’s poor reading. So when one such educational “expert” tells her to wait a bit longer and her daughter will be fine, she believes him. Later, another tells her that she should seek special help immediately; this leaves in her in a quandary about what to do, for a variety of reasons: one being that she can’t afford special help, another being that these two highly educated experts are telling her contrary things, and, while she wants the best for her daughter, she doesn’t have enough confidence in herself to challenge the contradictory advice she’s getting from the system. After all, she’s poorly educated, lacks specialist, vocabulary, contacts, etc. Even if she knew that she wanted to raise hell, she wouldn’t have a clue where to start, and wouldn’t know how to work the system if she did try. So time passes, she hopes and waits and frets, and her daughter falls further behind.

Now of course, if this mum was extraordinary, she’d probably find a way to solve this problem. But that’s just the catch: most parents are ordinary, not extraordinary. For the middle class, this isn’t a big deal, as a sense of entitlement is ordinary behaviour for this socio-economic group. It’s the rare middle class person, after all, who doesnt strive to play the system to get the most for their kids, and the rare middle class person who doesn’t have a pretty decent intuition of how to do that. We’ve got voice, and knowing how to use it comes with the socio-economic territory. To present another, non-education example, UK research shows very clearly that when middle class and working class people present to their doctors with the exact same symptoms, middle class people are significantly more likely to get a referral to a specialist. The system is set up to meet our styles, and our styles are set up to extract as much value as possible from the system.

Not that we should apologise for this, but it is something that doctors, teachers, principals etc should pay more attention to. Bureacratic hurdles should not be set up in such a way that ordinary middle class parents know how to clear them, but only extraordinary working class parents can figure it out.

I say all this with a nod to my own upbringing. I was unlucky enough to be born to a dirt poor teenage mother, back in the days when pregnant girls got booted out of school for their sins. But I was also lucky, too: to everyone’s surprise, my mum turned out to be very bright, very ambitious and not a little lucky (for instance, she was both good-looking and outgoing, which helped her to get higher paying waitressing jobs than she would otherwise have had access to), and, by the time I was a teenager, we were what an American would consider middle class. My poor cousins, on the other hand, weren’t sensible enough to be born to an extraordinary mum: their mothers were hard-working and very loving, but, well, they just weren’t good enough to overcome all those barriers that life puts in front of the very poor. So my cousins grew up with limited horizons and expectations. Today they live in trailers and work in factories in the deep south of the US, while I swan about London pinching myself at my good fortune.

I can’t help but think that it would be nice if those of us who are this lucky paid more attention to what got us here. In my case, it was a an extraordinary mum. But should poor children have to have extraordinary parents to stand the same chance that ordinary middle class kids have? I’d like to think not.

One final point (and apologies for the length of this post): my main problem is with the moralism that gets introduced into these discussions. Middle class / highly educated parents get valorised for simply doing what everyone around them does (and for knowing how to play the system), whereas impoverished and poorly educated parents are castigated as immoral, simply for not being extraordinary enough to overcome major economic and structural barriers. It’s important to remember that, in this case, the poorer parents are treating their kids almost exactly as middle class parents were treating theirs up till the last decade or so. It’s not like the middle class parents have suddenly become more moral; they’ve just figured out another way to extract advantage for their kids.

Again, apologies for the length, and congratulations on the nipper.



reuben 03.13.06 at 12:01 pm

The thing that the white middle class are doing right, paying so much more attention to their infants , toddlers and preschoolers. They talk to them way more (middle class children hear something like 9 times the words poor children do by the time they start school).

While I would dispute the need for the word “white” in this paragraph (Lareau’s book, for instance, notes far more similarities between white and black middle class parents than between white middle and working class parents), I do think that the parenting styles you mention play a major role. British research, if I’m remembering it right, indicates that middle class children hear at least twice as many encouraging words as babies than do working class children. And this seems to be socio-economically driven, just like spanking: when you become middle class, you do as the middle class does. Is there a way to encourage impoverished parents to adapt more advantageous parenting strategies, particularly with regards to verbal approaches? I do have to admit that I wish Laruea had asked this question (and tried to answer it) in her book. As far as what little research I’ve seen says, parenting classes seem to work quite well as far as improving child health outcomes, but haven’t shown positive results in other developmental categories. Brooks would presumably blame this on bad morals, of course, but I’m opting for a more complex answer.


cw 03.13.06 at 12:03 pm

About over-scheduling and helecoptering (don’t know what helecoptering means, but I think it must be connected). I don’t think I said or implied that overscheduling was the reason white middle-class kids do better in school. If I did, I take it back. I think they do better in school because in the infant/toddler/preschool years they get way more talking, touching, praise, parental involvement, etc… Becaasue of this they start school further ahead than poor kids of all races. Then, because (on average, we are always talking in generatlites here) WMC parents make the kids do homework, make them eat right, make them go to bed on time, kepp them safer, provided examples and expectations of educational, and get involved in their schools, the WMC kids do better in school.

I personally think the overscheduling is based mostly on the fact that it dosen’t seem safe to let you kids run around on their own. That’s how I feel about my 6 year old daughter. When I was 6 I was going up the street alone and would be gone most of the day. Now that just doesn’t seem safe. So, WMC parent have to arrange things for their kids to do. Poor parents don’t do that. I try to just do unstructured playdates, but there are lots of other more structured options out there. I don’t think overschduling is a good thing.

About the purpose of “parenting.” Parenting is not just something that WMC parents invented. It is something that is intrinsic, instinctive, evolutionarily driven in all mammals (at least all mammals). The whole point off evoloution is the survival of the genes. Offspring have to be given some kind of preparation for adulthood or the genes won’t survive. The more complicted the environment an animal lives in, the more complicated the instruction. And kids are super-primed to learn. They are constantly learning, whether we mean them to or not. So even the most laissez-fair parent is teaching, whether they mean to or not. I mean, what is culture but knowledge and attitudes passed down from parent to child? So, what is the big deal if we consciously try to teach the kids what we think they need to know. And is that a new thing? No way. What may be newer is that we have started to more objectively measure the effctiveness of various parenting styles and strategies, even to the point of the effect on cognative development, and the results have uncomfortable class and cultural implications.

About “success.” I think it has to be synonomous with happiness. I just threw it in there to cover all my bases.


cw 03.13.06 at 12:17 pm

“While I would dispute the need for the word “white” in this paragraph…”

I’m not totally sure, but I think that there is still an acheivement gap between white middle class kids and black and hispanic middle class kids. Maybe some of this can be related to parenting style (and for sure a lot of other stuff). I bet a large number of the black and hispanic middle class are first generation. People do parent like thier peers, but the also tend to parent like their parents. So, maybe, the black and hispanic middle class haven’t totally adopted the WMC parenting style. This is pure conjecture.

It is also interesting that asian parents have a different parenting style from the WMC, but their kids have the highest educational success rates. It would be interesting to study the diffferneces here.


Laura 03.13.06 at 12:30 pm

Just a quick question for anyone who has read Lareau’s book.

I understand how she can conclude that there are different parenting styles among the middle and working class families by observation, case studies, whatever.

But I’m not sure how she gets to her point that parenting styles impacts on social status. Is there any research that she uses to support that or is it just concluding speculation? How does she exclude other variables such as peer group interaction, bad schools, and good old fashioned exploitation? I’m sure she’s right, but I’m just wondering about the social science.


John Emerson 03.13.06 at 12:41 pm

“Success” means money. If someone says that success is something else, it means that they’ve decided to fail.


The root meaning of success has to do with winning competitions and gaining rewards, and usually that’s means money. People who want to get off the treadmill will say that “true success” is something else, but that’s just their way of transitioning. What they’ve really done is renounce success for something else, and good for them.


reuben 03.13.06 at 12:47 pm


I’m sure some other people here, Harry especially, can answer this question a bit better than me, but here goes anyway.

Her hypothesis, as I understood it, was that a highly verbal parenting style teaches children how to navigate their way through situations via analysis, reason and verbal dexterity. The ability to do this is socially valuable, and would all influence future status, she argues.

She also hypothesises that teaching children to look adults in the eye, to have high expectations from them, and to frequently interact with them in circumstances where adults aren’t simply issuing children directives, but the situation is more back-and-forth, makes children more comfortable with, and prepared for, the type of interactions that lead to success in the adult world.

However, you’re right; she doesn’t appear to control for any of the factors you mention (unless I missed something when reading it). So now I’m going to go read The Nurture Assumption and see what that tells me.



Eleanor 03.13.06 at 12:49 pm

I want to agree with so much that Reuben says in 36 (and elsewhere). There’s a question about how far parenting strategies are conceived and carried out consciously. Most of us parent according to 1) our skills and 2) the example given to us by our own parents and peers. I’m not sure “neglect”, as used in a couple of places in this thread [and I should make clear here that I haven’t read the book or Brooks’ piece], is the appropriate word for a parenting strategy that arises so much from example.


cw 03.13.06 at 12:58 pm

“But I’m not sure how she gets to her point that parenting styles impacts on social status.”

I don’t know if it’s in the book because I haven’t read it, but one big impacting factor that has (I can only assume) been well researched is the number of words spoken to children in middle class homes as compared to working class and then poor homes. This directly effects a child’s preparedness for reading when entering school ( I assume this has been researched as well). Becasue of all this talk directed at them, the middle class kids start ahead and, on average, the poor and working class kids never catch up. And that definitely impacts on social status.


reuben 03.13.06 at 1:01 pm

“I want to agree with so much that Reuben says”

If just once in my life my girlfriend would say those beautiful words…


Laura 03.13.06 at 1:23 pm

Yes, she hypothesizes that verbal skills, eye to eye contact, confidence when dealing with adults and bureaucracy all help one’s future success. But does she try to prove that? Does she look at middle class kids who experienced the natural child development of a working class family and shown that they don’t do all that well later in life? There are many wealthy kids who are almost solely raised by working class nannies and they seem to do just fine.


reuben 03.13.06 at 1:59 pm


No, she only observes and makes hypotheses; to my knowledge, she doesn’t test. This is a weakness.

On the other hand, I can think of a few reasons why “wealthy kids who are raised almost solely by nannies” would do fine.

It’s about human and social capital, isn’t it? And this highly verbal parenting style is just one of the many capital-increasing mechanisms that middle class or wealthy parents’ use, with most of the work probably actually being done by other things, eg having the money to live in decent neighbourhoods, go to decent schools, and have fewer potentially problematic peers. I’m sure this particular arrow could be removed from most arsenals and the kids would still do fine. Certainly a very wealthy child is going to have all sorts of other advantages at her disposal, even without this particular one. (And lots of those advantages, such as challenging schools and one-on-one tutors, will actually do much of this verbal work anyway, no?)

For me, the main point of the book was that better-off kids have all sorts of advantages, and here’s yet another. But no, you’re right, she doesn’t actually prove or even test that it’s an advantage.


paul 03.13.06 at 3:57 pm

I wonderif there’s a big enough cohort of kids raised by nannies (and enough data about the nannies and the rest of their lives) to do a decent study at this point. (“Raised by nannies” is of course nowhere near a homogeneous group, and you’d have to sort that out before you went any further.)


DLacey 03.13.06 at 4:39 pm

>>Any parenting style that dosen’t turn out happy successful adults in a given culture is by definition, faulty.

>The word “successful” in this sentence appears to either be completely superfluous (because synonymous with “happy”) or actively counterproductive ([…]would make a parenting style really good even if the kid grew up miserable).

Try reading “successful” to mean “promoting the happiness of the community as a whole” and see if it makes more sense then. What good is a parenting style that raises a kid to be a very happy serial killer?


John Emerson 03.13.06 at 4:59 pm

How many redefinitions can one word endure?


soc anon 03.13.06 at 5:24 pm

My sense is that “childrearing practices” are an intervening mechanism at best (between advantaged background and advantaged socioeconomic outcomes), and rather distant and weak ones at that. The causal mechanisms in her earlier books — e.g., on how middle-class parents manage the educational system for their kids — were much clearer and more plausible.

If anyone wants to hear Lareau and other sociologists discuss class effects, she (along with Dalton Conley and David Grusky) is putting together a conference, “Social Class: How Does it Work” in NYC on April 21 and 22. The conference, which is free and open to the public, will begin at 8:30 am (8:00 continental breakfast) at 19th West 4th Street. It ends around 1 on Saturday; presumably complete schedules will be available on site.


james 03.13.06 at 6:36 pm

Driven people tend to be more successful. There are more raw opportunities to succeed through the application of knowledge than there are in other areas such as athletics, art, music, etc. Raising a child such that they are driven to acquire knowledge and the ability to use it greatly increases that child’s chances for success.


Z 03.13.06 at 7:39 pm

It is hard of course to “test” these kind of hypotheses because the number of potentially influencing factors is high. However, I can point you to some works in that direction (done on the french case). The hypothesis was the following: a good measure of achievement in school is given by the value implicitly given to school by the parents (two remarks: first, the hypothesis is actually a little more complex of course but I don’t want to be too technical; second, this is a french study, it would be wrong to assume that it would still be relevant in another country). This has been extensively tested by sociologists like Kepel, Merle, Durut-Bellat, Beaud, Bourdieu etc. and in a wide variety of situations. They did both hardcore data studies and groundwork, that is following Reuben’s advice to “pay more attention to what got us here.” In France at least, the hypothesis has now a robust experimental foundation (including some very counter-intuitive results on the achievements of upper-upper-class and immigrants).

According to this hypothesis, one of the advantages of a middle-class education is thus that it teaches children that it is a valuable thing to enter in relation with adults about certain subjects (i.e academic ones), that these subjects are “serious” and “well-worth pursuing”.

It is of course scientifically interesting to ask the question of cause and consequence. To put it bluntly do middle-class parents (probably rather upper middle-class, actually probably a more refined subgroup) adapt their parenting style to ensure that their children will be well-suited to the changes of society or do they adapt society to ensure that it will be well-suited to the changes of their parenting style? I believe this is an important sociological problem as it connects very intimate questions to very broad ones (for the record, I am a staunch defender of the second proposition).


John Emerson 03.13.06 at 8:06 pm

The middleclass parenting style is in many respects a survival of Dewey’s ideas about “progressive education” and the ideas of Dr Spock on childraising. Lots of interaction, and freedom in the context of developing skills.

Both styles actually emphasize the freedom and autonomy of the child in different ways. This might be characteristically American. Neither is the authoritarian style where the father’s word is law (a style which does, however, survive within the US, and should have been considered).


LogicGuru 03.13.06 at 8:52 pm

Jeez who knows. My kids grew up in a working class neighborhood where they played in the streets, rode bikes all around the city and didn’t have any structured activities organized by adults. My primary commitment was to leave them alone and, in particular, not to protect them from physical harm. I wanted them to have guts.

Now they’re applying for college, going to college or in grad school heading for upper middle class lives. The kids they played with are in the military, in jail or working fast food and going nowhere.

I don’t think it’s parenting, or “quality time” or anything parents do in the early years so much as more amorphous things like dinner table conversation, books in the house, piano lessons, TV programs and, broadly speaking, “culture.” And beyond this, commitment to making kids get their credentials at all costs. Our rule on this is: in high school your whole job is pumping GPA–we don’t care what else you do. You have to get into the most prestigious possible college and we don’t care how much time it takes for you to get through: you have got to get at least a BS or BA in a math-heavy discipline. Math, hard sciences, Computer Science, Engineering, Economics–that’s it. We will finance you completely, we forbid you to work while you go to school–you get that piece of paper and then you can do whatever you want.

Working class parents I think aren’t focused on that goal, don’t realize the importance of such credentials, have stupid ideas about the virtues of work, and aren’t willing to push kids or finance them to get those credential at all costs.


Russell Arben Fox 03.13.06 at 10:38 pm

Working class parents I think aren’t focused on that goal, don’t realize the importance of such credentials, have stupid ideas about the virtues of work, and aren’t willing to push kids or finance them to get those credentials at all costs.

By “stupid,” logicguru, I assume you mean, “unlikely to produce those results usually rewarded by the meritocracy.” According to that definition, I agree with you. But if by “stupid” you actually mean “warrantless, ignorant, without reason, irresponsible,” etc., well, I’ll have to disagree with you. I’ve no doubt at lot of people likely consider the meritocratically counterproductive emphasis on the “virtues of work” to be a bizarre and sour-grapes morality in 21st-century America, but from what I’ve observed, it is still faithfully adhered to by more than a few, and a lot of them appear to continue to find it a decent rule to live by. Normativity is not yet, I think, entirely reducible to credentialism.


John Emerson 03.13.06 at 10:44 pm

Logicguru, your method seems like a mix of the Asian-American method (insisting on good grades and not having the kid work) and the working-class American method (not being protective).


Harald Korneliussen 03.14.06 at 2:10 am

cw wrote: “I think they do better in school because in the infant/toddler/preschool years they get way more talking, touching, praise, parental involvement, etc…”

But do they? I realise upper class/middle class means different things in Norway, but of those who are much wealthier than me, it seems to me that they generally spend very little time with their children, because they are so busy with their careers. People who are otherwise educated, wealthy and happy, and who buy a PlayStation for their kids before they are five.


Guessedworker 03.14.06 at 5:54 am

“I’m not totally sure, but I think that there is still an acheivement gap between white middle class kids and black and hispanic middle class kids.”

In the aggregate, inherited inter-racial differences in g are inescapable, and inform the K end of the r-K spectrum, too. Environmental differences are not merely accidents of birth or class, but are themselves in some part rendered by

To get at the degree to which high childcare strategies effect outcomes races should be separately studied, and the resultant categories controlled for g as well as class.

This would provide a window on the linkage of IQ and r/K, and on both to to wealth, and to cross-racial similarities as well as differences.


Steve LaBonne 03.14.06 at 8:38 am

I understand there is a considerable body of data to show that, other factors being adequately controlled for, attending “the most prestigious possible college” actually doesn’t count for much. I can’t point to a reference, though.


y81 03.14.06 at 8:56 am

Regarding children raised by nursemaids, my mother and my daughter had nursemaids, but my siblings and I did not, so I have some empirical knowledge here. I don’t think it makes much difference. A child who is raised by a nursemaid still sees that power and authority flow to those with education and a certain (upper middle class) way of dealing with problems. Also, of course, that child has the benefits of fancy schools, parental connections etc.

Additionally, in today’s world, at least in New York, most nursemaids are immigrants, many of whom value education (for both their charges and their own children) at least as much as their employers do. I have never encountered a nursemaid who was from an American working class background.


Steve LaBonne 03.14.06 at 9:04 am

Cross-cultural data point supporting y81: upper-middle-class Indians are still raised by lower class, often illiterate ayahs, and it clearly doesn’t threaten their inheritance of class privilege at all. The fancy schools and parental connections work much the same way in Mumbai as in New York.


John Emerson 03.14.06 at 9:41 am

Lareau’s book basically compared two specific, widespread American childraising styles. This was not exhaustive even for American life, since she left out the old-fashioned authoritarian distant father style. It didn’t amount to a general theory of parenting at all, and I think that the Chinese/Korean-American style I noted and the Indian “ayah” style are also outside Lareau sample.

The handful of Indian families I’ve known put great stress on family conversations involving even the smallest kids.

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